Although I have longed to find the time to read Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I often wish that there were some great book about the rise of the Roman city state and Rome before Julius Cesar. Why? Because the nobility of Rome in its rise surpasses any real moral scruples it had in its decline. Yes, to read about Roman orgies and the ambition of generals more interested in power than they are in the good of Rome itself is depressing. Being a Jew, I might be ambivalent about Rome’s conversion–it transformed Rome and ultimately the West for good. I do not know if I can say–even as a Jew–that Gibbon is right that it only became worse with Catholic Christianity. At least the new faith provided Rome with a new sense of purpose that transcended gladiator games and charioteers which the masses were seduced into watching as away of anesthetizing them to the loss of their freedom. (I guess I will admit that I would not mind these sports so much if they did not involve what was nearly human sacrifice towards the participants of the games.)
As an American I claim the inheritance of two great civilizations that Europe claims also–Greece and Rome. However, I say that in 1776 our Philosopher Kings did something that had died off in Europe: created a state based on the best philosophy that they had available to them. I admit that despite America being usually compared to Rome, I have always preferred Greece. The Romans might have understood, “Captive Greece held Rome captive.” Yet Athens’ decline was simply war and self-destruction. Hellenistic Greece was Greece’s autumn rich in beautiful Art and brilliant Philosophy though it was. Rome’s strength was might and stability, and that is why its decline was slow and involved moral corruption. Yet in the Republic, though not democratic like Athens, there was a sense that nobility shown in people like Scipio Africanus and Cicero. And to be fair: are Ovid and Virgil less beautiful than Homer and Sophocles are noble? With that in mind–and I hope none of this sounds pompous–I am going to place a poem I wrote about the greatest Roman of them all: Cicero, not Brutus. I am not sure it is truly sad that Julius Cesar was assassinated but Cicero was butchered by Mark Antony because of his final acts of decrying the tyranny of a man more corrupt than Shakespeare’s plays reveal.
Rome’s soul died with great Cicero,
the Republic’s last hero before it died
under Octavius Cesar and Mark Antony
who would fight to the Death over Empire.
Cicero would not himself outlast what
he believed in as citizen.
He would not outlive the Republic he loved.
Caught a Senator between ambitious men
the wealthy generals who would fight
for the cause of self before Rome itself,
Cicero fought to have good principles.
He treasured “the Good” Plato loved,
for though more of a statesman
than a philosopher he still loved the thoughts
his open mind could comprehend.
Dear Cicero, was and is the guiding star
of Republics and Self-Rule of Peoples.
Dear Cicero, therefore, grant us your faith
Patriotism be based on the Love of Law.
He loved justice within the good state:
He loved decency more than Power and Wealth.
Cicero could have lived with both if he chose,
but chose that if there was a choice between
the Good and Death or Sensuality and Life
Cicero would always pick the former.
O grant us our ultimate faith in Goodness
the Goodness of Traditions that bind
while realizing that unhappy occasions
arise that require of us we allow for innovations
to keep our basic values fresh anew.
He would die before wearing a Cesar’s crown.
The laws might bend but always will bind.
Cicero was unyielding, firm,
but this made his faith glorious
he refused to give up the right to speak
against any form of tyranny.
It was freedom which had defined Rome—
the land which he loved.
I say with him: May my people live free—
or die, better a self-ruling corpse than a living slave.
And sadly, without their great Cicero
Rome fell to servility, the vices sprang
from the gutters of Rome, and orgies held
for without freedom some impure souls
turn to debauchery, for it is true
the human heart is a restless hunter
and confined in a prison, it festers and rots.
Gladiators the Empire’s entertainment.
Yes, without Cicero Rome fell to disrepute
a brothel unworthy of the two Catos and the two Scipios,
those heroes of earlier times forgotten
who should not go unmentioned by historians
of a better sort of Roman who would die for love
of Justice, and Goodness, and the Republic.
O Cicero! A man of pride and a patriot
in the best sense of a misused word;
so often the last refuge of the scoundrel,
as many a Cesar or Marc Antony would know.
They claim to be honoring its name
with ever-increasing dreams of power.
Yet Cicero was Rome’s conscience to the very end.
When the Republic died, who cared what next?
I want to add that though this sounds–perhaps–overly traditional and drawn to at least some of the “military virtues” as well as that all-important desire for freedom, I want to add a thought: Could Donald Trump be our Cesar in the sense that even though his open rancor is uglier to see than a Julius Cesar speak? Why? Because he would take American freedom and throw it away. I firmly believe that his only goal is money (and perhaps power) and he must be stopped. I know it looks as though he could not be elected again–but do we know? Hitler in his jail cell wrote Mein Kompf. At one point the German government suggested exporting him to Austria on the grounds that he was an Austrian citizen and not a German one (and indeed, though he fought in World War I in a sense, he was born in Austria). So we must find a way to really put Donald Trump in a prison cell or all may be lost… especially because–if you think about it–if he goes unpunished there will be another one. That is why I invoke Cicero, the last true Roman–he would see his country free or die.